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US Ends Military Mission in Iraq December 16, 2011

The U.S. military has formally ended its mission in Iraq.  At a ceremony in Baghdad, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta watched as American troops lowered their command’s flag, marking an end to the nearly nine-year war that drove out Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein.  

It was a solemn, low-key ceremony outside a terminal at Baghdad’s airport in a fortified area surrounded by concrete barriers.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta flew in briefly for the ceremony, which was held in front of scores of U.S. troops and foreign media. There was a seat reserved for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But he did not attend.

Soldiers took the flag representing the U.S. military command in Iraq, rolled it around the staff, and slipped into a camouflage cloth case. The gesture marked the symbolic end of Operation New Dawn and the war that lasted nearly nine years, killed more than 4,000 Americans along with tens of thousands of Iraqis, and unleashed sectarian violence in the country.

Panetta called’s Thursday’s ceremony a historic occasion. “To be sure, the cost was high, in blood and treasure for the United States and for the Iraqi people. Those lives were not lost in vain,” he said. “They gave birth to an independent, free and sovereign Iraq.”

People chant anti-US slogans during a demonstration in Fallujah, 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq, December 14, 2011.

What U.S. forces leave behind is a stability that is fragile at best. Violence has diminished in the past few years, but continues to flare, with attacks carried out by insurgents, some of them operating with Iranian support.

Some U.S. officials had wanted to keep several thousand troops in place beyond a December 31 deadline that Washington and Baghdad set three years ago. However, President Obama announced a total withdrawal in October after his administration failed to reach an agreement for Iraq to provide immunity to U.S. troops.


VOA

At the time of the announcement, there were about 50,000 troops in Iraq. That number is down to a few thousand as the last convoys of trucks make their way south to bases in Kuwait.

In his remarks Thursday, Panetta said Washington will remain engaged in Iraq.

“Let me be clear,” said Panetta. “Iraq will be tested in the days ahead by terrorism and by those who would seek to divide it; by economic and social issues; by the demands of democracy itself. Challenges remain, but the U.S. will stand by the Iraqi people as they navigate those challenges to build a stronger and more prosperous nation.”

The American embassy in Baghdad houses the United States’ largest diplomatic presence in the world, and a small number of troops will remain, mainly to protect diplomats.

Some Iraqis this week celebrated the departure of U.S. troops, while others expressed concern that the country could again slip into chaos and violence.

Whatever the outcome, the future of Iraq remains in the hands of its people.

Timeline of the Iraq Invasion

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US flag ceremony ends war in Iraq December 15, 2011


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US Defences Secretary, Leon Panetta: “To all of the men and women in uniform today your nation is deeply indebted to you.”

The flag of American forces in Iraq has been lowered in Baghdad, bringing nearly nine years of US military operations in Iraq to a formal end.

The US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, told troops the mission had been worth the cost in blood and dollars.

He said the years of war in Iraq had yielded to an era of opportunity in which the US was a committed partner.

Only about 4,000 US soldiers now remain in Iraq, but they are due to leave in the next two weeks.

At the peak of the operation, US forces there numbered 170,000.

Continue reading the main story

Analysis




For 40 years, Iraq has been one of the most damaged countries on earth.

The American-led invasion and overthrow of Saddam led to a savage civil war which is still not finished.

The United States leaves behind a country embittered by the occupation.

And yet today, as the Americans pull down their flag and leave, some Iraqis hope that their country’s luck may be turning.

If Iraq becomes wealthy, if it can stay more or less democratic, if it can finally bring terrorism to an end, then the 40 years of horror may be over.

Its people deserve a little good luck at last.

The symbolic ceremony in Baghdad officially “cased” (retired) the US forces flag, according to army tradition.

It will now be taken back to the USA.

Mr Panetta told US soldiers they could leave Iraq with great pride.

“After a lot of blood spilled by Iraqis and Americans, the mission of an Iraq that could govern and secure itself has become real,” he said.

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Hussain al-Shahristani said Iraqis were glad the US troops were leaving.

“They have been difficult years,” he told the BBC.

“We have had some successes together. We had some failures. We have some mishaps.

“I think we are all happy that the American soldiers are returning home safely to their families and we are also confident that the Iraqi people and their armed forces, police, are in a position now to take care of their own security.”

Some 4,500 US soldiers and more than 100,000 Iraqis have died in the war.

The conflict, launched by the Bush administration in March 2003, soon became hugely unpopular as claims that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction and supporting al-Qaeda militants turned out to be untrue.

The war has cost the US some $1tr.

Republicans have criticised the pullout citing concerns over Iraq’s stability, but a recent poll by the Pew Research Centre found that 75% of Americans backed the troop withdrawal.

‘Moment of success’

President Barack Obama, who came to office pledging to bring troops home, said on Wednesday that the US left behind a “sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq”.

In a speech in North Carolina to troops who have just returned, Mr Obama hailed the “extraordinary achievement” of the military and said they were leaving with “heads held high”.

“Everything that American troops have done in Iraq, all the fighting and dying, bleeding and building, training and partnering, has led us to this moment of success,” he said.


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Barack Obama: “You have shown why the US military is the finest fighting force in the history of the world”

“The war in Iraq will soon belong to history, and your service belongs to the ages.”

He said the war had been “a source of great controversy” but that they had helped to build “a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people”.

Mr Obama announced in October that all US troops would leave Iraq by the end of 2011, a date previously agreed by former President George W Bush in 2008.

Some 1.5 million Americans have served in Iraq since the US invasion in 2003. In addition to those who died, nearly 30,000 have been wounded.

Troop numbers peaked during the height of the so-called surge strategy in 2007, but the last combat troops left Iraq in August last year.

A small contingent of some 200 soldiers will remain in Iraq as advisers, while some 15,000 US personnel are now based at the US embassy in Baghdad – by far the world’s largest.

‘Ruin and mess’

Some Iraqis have said they fear the consequences of being left to manage their own security.

Baghdad trader Malik Abed said he was grateful to the Americans for ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein, but added: “I think now we are going to be in trouble. Maybe the terrorists will start attacking us again.”

But in the city of Falluja, a former insurgent stronghold which was the scene of major US offensives in 2004, people burned US flags on Wednesday in celebration at the withdrawal.

“No-one trusted their promises, but they said when they came to Iraq they would bring security, stability and would build our country,” Ahmed Aied, a grocer, told Reuters news agency.

“Now they are walking out, leaving behind killings, ruin and mess.”

Concerns have also been voiced in Washington that Iraq lacks robust political structures or an ability to defend its borders.

There are also fears that Iraq could be plunged back into sectarian bloodletting, or be unduly influenced by Iran.

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Terror suspect defence law passes

FBI Director Robert Mueller said it was not clear how the provision would impact law enforcement agencies

The US House of Representatives has passed a defence bill likely to change the way the US detains terror suspects.

The bill passed after the White House lifted a veto threat, noting “several important changes” had been made. It is likely to go to the Senate on Thursday.

The bill also includes additional sanctions against Iran’s central bank and freezes some aid to Pakistan.

The clauses are part of a wider, $662bn (£428bn) defence bill approving weapons systems and military salaries.

In the most scrutinised parts of the legislation, the bill would deny terror suspects – including US citizens – of the right to trial and would permit indefinite detention.

‘Additional discretion’

The issue is part of a wider debate over whether to treat terror suspects as criminals or prisoners of war, correspondents say.

Top members of the president’s national security team, including Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, negotiated for changes to the parts of the bill that deal with the handling of terror suspects.

The law will require that the military take custody of terrorism suspects but safeguards the president’s ability to prosecute detainees in the civilian justice system.

US citizens would be exempt from this provision, and affirms that the changes would not affect US law enforcement agencies.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the bill “does not challenge the president’s ability to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists and protect the American people.”

But some officials had more practical objections to the clause. FBI Director Robert Mueller criticised the provision for its lack of clarity on how the changes would be implemented at the time of arrest.

The White House said that some of those concerns remain.

“While we remain concerned about the uncertainty that this law will create for our counter-terrorism professionals, the most recent changes give the president additional discretion in determining how the law will be implemented,” Mr Carney added.

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Panetta: Troops’ Sacrifices ‘Paying Off’ in Afghanistan

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told American troops in eastern Afghanistan the United States is winning the 10-year-old war against extremists in the country.

Panetta flew to a remote U.S. Military base to present valor award medals to soldiers and offer reassurances the troops are making what he called significant progress in the war against extremists.

“I really think that for all the sacrifice that you are doing, the reality is that it is paying off and that we are moving in the right direction, and we are winning this very tough conflict here in Afghanistan,” he said.

Despite recent high-profile attacks by extremist groups, Panetta said Afghanistan is enjoying the most reduced levels of violence in five years, adding that U.S.-led NATO forces have weakened the Taliban to the point where the group has not conducted a successful attack to regain lost territory.

But Panetta said the mission has yet to be completed and much of eastern Afghanistan remains an area of concern for U.S. forces.

Troubled relations with Pakistan are complicating U.S. efforts to stabilize the region. Washington has accused Pakistan’s security agency of supporting extremists who have launched attacks inside Afghanistan. Pakistan has recently closed off supply routes to U.S. forces following a recent NATO attack on the border that Pakistan says killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

Panetta, standing fewer than 60 kilometers from the Pakistani border as he delivered his message, called for Islamabad to do more to bring stability to the region. He described U.S.-Pakistan relations as difficult but necessary and important.

“We are continuing to work with them in the hope that we can establish that kind of relationship,” he said. “We have got to do that because, ultimately, we have got to make sure that if we are going to secure this country, the Pakistanis had better damned well secure their country as well.”

Panetta later met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The Afghan leader told reporters the 10-year war has brought overall stability to Afghanistan, but said much needs to be done before the Afghan people can enjoy peace and security.

“With regard to bringing personal security to the Afghan people, we have a journey to make and I hope that journey will be done sooner and successfully,” said Karzai.

The U.S. has begun drawing down its forces in Afghanistan, a process it expects to complete in 2014.

Following his Afghanistan visit, Panetta will stop in Baghdad to mark the end of the eight-year-old U.S. mission in Iraq.

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Panetta in Afghanistan, Calls 2011 a ‘Turning Point’ December 14, 2011

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is on a surprise visit to Afghanistan, where he says 2011 will mark a turning point in the 10-year-old war.  

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in Kabul for a visit with troops and a first-hand assessment from the man who commands them, General John Allen.

Speaking on his way to the region, Panetta said he wants to see what troops have been able to accomplish in Afghanistan. “[The year] 2011 will mark a turning point with regards to the effort in Afghanistan. Our troops have been able to obviously reduce the levels of violence there. We’ve seen the lowest levels of violence in almost five years now. They are successful in securing some of the key areas in Afghanistan,” he said.

The United States expects to complete a drawdown of troops in the country by 2014.  The defense chief said the U.S.-led coalition has made gains against Taliban insurgents in most of the country.

Despite continuing insurgent attacks, he said U.S. forces are on their way to being able to hand over military and police control of the whole country to the Afghans on schedule. “Clearly I think Afghanistan is on a much better track in terms of our ability to eventually transition to an Afghanistan that can govern and secure itself,” he said.

Prospects for a smooth transition are being complicated by deteriorating relations with Pakistan, especially after a NATO-led attack on a border area last month killed 24 Pakistanis troops.  Pakistan responded by closing off a key supply routes for U.S. forces and moving air defense systems to its border with Afghanistan.

General Allen told reporters Tuesday in Kabul he has been reaching out to the Pakistanis in an effort to repair ties and restore cooperation along the Afghan border.  Allen said he spoke with his Pakistani counterpart, General Ashfaq Kayani, by telephone this week. “The outcome of the conversation was that we stated our mutual commitment to address any shortfalls that may have caused this event, and also to ensure that we work closely together because the border is always going to be there,” he said.

Panetta said a good relationship with Pakistan is crucial to winning the war in Afghanistan.

After Kabul, the U.S. Defense Secretary heads to Baghdad for a ceremony marking the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

During a stop in Djibouti earlier, Panetta said Washington’s attention is turning to the Horn of Africa and Yemen, where he said al-Qaida and other terrorist networks are moving in.  He said the U.S. relationship with Djibouti has developed into a very important partnership in this new phase of the counter-terrorism effort.   

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the process of drawing down, Panetta is touring the region to take stock of both conflicts.  He also plans a visit to Libya where U.S.-led NATO forces this year helped a popular revolution overthrow the government of the late leader Muammar Qadafi.

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